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September 1, 2014

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Website redirect has online surprise for district attorney’s potential campaign donors

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District Attorney Steve Wolfson mistakenly promotes a website, dawolfson.com, that isn’t his on this campaign video. The website redirects users to a petition website to allow DNA testing for Kirstin Blaise Lobato. According to the website the allowance of DNA testing is reliant on Wolfson’s decisions.

People looking to donate to Steve Wolfson in his effort to remain as Clark County’s district attorney are in for a surprise if they use a website Wolfson promotes in a campaign video.

Just after the two-minute mark of the video, posted on YouTube the day after he officially threw his hat in the ring, Wolfson says his supporters can make campaign donations at dawolfson.com.

It was a slip of the tongue — his campaign’s official site is dastevewolfson.com. Wolfson’s campaign doesn’t own dawolfson.com. Rather, someone looking to stir up trouble for his campaign owns the domain.

As a result, dawolfson.com automatically redirects visitors to a change.org petition calling for Wolfson to green-light DNA testing of evidence from the case of Kirstin Blaise Lobato, a Panaca woman twice convicted of brutally killing a homeless man and cutting off his penis in 2001 in Las Vegas.

A Clark County District Court judge and the Nevada Supreme Court already have shut down Lobato’s DNA testing efforts. But her supporters contend Lobato is innocent and DNA testing will prove it.

The petition, which has more than 200,000 signatures, asks Wolfson to allow the testing and to not oppose Lobato’s pending Nevada Supreme Court appeal, which argues there is new evidence that should be considered. Those working to free Lobato have sent similar petitions to the District Attorney's Office in the past.

Michelle Ravell, co-founder of Justice for Kirstin and creator of the petitions, said she found out about the switched website after she watched Wolfson’s campaign video. Ravell went to check out Wolfson’s campaign page and was pleasantly surprised when the site redirected her to the change.org petition.

Website redirects are a way someone can avoid having to maintain multiple websites — and score viewers the sites otherwise wouldn’t — said Rob Sawyer, IT director with law firm McDonald Carano Wilson, which has an office in Las Vegas.

“It’s almost like a misdirection or manipulation,” Sawyer said. “It’s a very cheap tactic to try and get people who aren’t interested in you to unintentionally go to your website.”

Sawyer said he’d heard of site redirections being used before in political campaigns. He said he’d heard of a politician who bought domain names so that people looking for his rivals’ sites instead would land on his campaign website.

David Thomas, Wolfson’s campaign manager, confirmed the campaign doesn’t own the dawolfson.com domain and that Wolfson must have forgotten to say the word “Steve” in the YouTube video interview.

For her part, Ravell believes there is overwhelming evidence that Lobato, 18 at the time of the crime, is innocent and the DNA testing will show it. Ravell considers it unethical to block the evidence in court and thinks Wolfson should use his power as district attorney to approve the testing.

"I'm not just an advocate for Kirstin Lobato. I'm also a voter," Ravell said, noting she intended to make the cause for Lobato an election issue for Wolfson. "It's very important to me that anyone who holds office and is paid by our tax dollars be ethical. I live my life that way and I expect them to, too."

Ravell doesn’t see the harm in doing the testing since the Innocence Project, which has worked to free dozens of people from wrongful convictions, has offered to pick up the cost.

Steven Owens, the chief deputy district attorney on the Lobato case, is baffled as to how the issue keeps resurfacing.

“They lost in court and they still are talking about it with everyone else,” Owens said.

“Make an argument that makes sense in court and you can get the DNA testing.”

Owens also doesn’t understand the insistence that Wolfson should just sidestep the judicial process and send the evidence off to be tested.

“What kind of justice is that, where the elected official, just on a whim or based on public opinion and a letter-writing campaign, metes out justice?” Owens said. "That’s not the way that the law works.”

The standard required to win the testing is low, Owens said: All that needs to be shown is a reasonable possibility that had the evidence been available, the suspect would not have not been prosecuted or convicted.

As far as that goes, he said, prosecutors didn’t make their case based on the physical evidence — which the jury knew included semen from an unidentified man — but on Lobato’s own confession.

Even if the DNA pointed to a separate culprit, it would only mean Lobato had help in the commission of the crime, Owens said, not that Lobato didn’t commit the crime.

Lobato’s defense argued no physical evidence tied her to the crime and that she never knew Duran Bailey, let alone confessed to his murder.

Lobato’s defense further argued there was no confession and the statement she gave to officers was about an unrelated rape earlier that summer. Prosecutors attributed the differences in her story to drug use and a lack of familiarity with Las Vegas.

How much the testing costs and who pays is also irrelevant, Owens said. If testing could prove Lobato’s innocence, it would be paid for regardless of cost, he said.

Lobato has been found guilty in the death of Bailey twice, at trial in 2002 and in a 2006 retrial. In the retrial, jurors reduced the charge in their guilty verdict from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. The two juries only differed when it came to the severity of the crime, Owens pointed out, and both juries found Lobato to be Bailey’s killer.

Ravell said she would continue fighting for Lobato and drawing attention to Wolfson’s campaign. She’s also trying to figure out which of Lobato’s supporters is behind the domain name purchase so she can thank them.

Ravell said she’s shown the case to legal experts nationally who have agreed Lobato is not guilty and that she believes the pending appeal and new evidence will exonerate Lobato.

“If (her supporters) are right, who knows? Maybe they’ll win on appeal, though I don’t think trying to whip up publicity and get a fan club to agree on her innocence should trump the legal process,” Owens said. “It’s the power of the Internet, I guess. There is a lot of misinformation and a lot of distorted facts out there.”

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